The polarity of stress

Three kids. Three schools. All of which dismiss at three o’clock.

This is what I’m dealing with. This pretty much summarizes the last three months—and also offers an excellent excuse for this being my first post in eight weeks.

I am drowning.

A giant whiteboard leans against the wall in my office. Every Sunday night, I write out who needs to be where on which day at what time. I’m juggling multiple choir rehearsals and dance rehearsals and soccer practices and piano lessons and church activities LIKE A BOSS. So far, no one has been stranded without a ride. So far.

But I am so, so tired.

Two weeks ago, I was supposed to run away from home. Michael had a meeting in Chicago, which is one of my favorite cities in the world, so we were planning to make it a date-weekend and reconnect, refresh, renew. Considering the chaos of our lives recently, Chicago was a carrot, a promise, our motivation for hanging on just a little while longer.

On the Tuesday before the Friday I was scheduled to leave, Nathan came home with a fever. No other symptoms. Just a low-grade fever and a little bitty cough that would not go away. All week, I hydrated him, oiled him, fed him, detoxed him—everything I could possibly do to help his body heal…quickly! I took him to the pediatrician, requested a strep test (negative), had him thoroughly examined. The doctor suspected a virus and sent us home.

In the meantime, Nathan is bouncing around singing, “Being sick is fun!” (I could not form words to respond. And I hid all the forks so I would not stab my eyeballs.) Even when his temperature continued to rise and stay over 101, he didn’t even have a headache, which was totally bizarre. I tested my thermometer on the other kids to make sure it was working.

On Thursday night, his temperature spiked over 104 and his cough was getting worse.

I cancelled my plane ticket.

And I stayed home. Instead of going to Chicago. Instead of date-weekend. Instead of a quiet hotel room with crisp white sheets and fluffy pillows. Instead of Michigan Avenue and museums and art galleries.

On Friday afternoon and evening, I made two trips to the AT&T store to activate my new phone and another trip to the Apple store when it wouldn’t work. In the middle of these trips, Meghan texted me from school to say she wasn’t feeling well and please come get her.

On Saturday afternoon, after watching a football game, Griffin was walking through the kitchen when he stopped abruptly and yelled, “OH CRAP!” because he had a Spanish project due on Monday. Which was assigned five weeks ago. Which he had not started.

That night, I gave King Dramaflair a dose of homeopathic cough medicine. He flailed and whined and fussed for ten minutes before he finally threw it back. Then he threw up.

On the rug.

On the hardwood floors.

On the tile.

Around the toilet.

As I was mopping up pink puke (alone, because Michael was in Chicago, at a cocktail party), Meghan texted me to come pick her up from a party (for which she had made a miraculous recovery after coming home from school early and taking a nap).

The next week, I made an appointment to have my car maintenanced, because this is what responsible grown-ups do. On the way, I got a speeding ticket. Then I arrived at the dealership, where the check-in guy looked at my car, recorded the mileage, and asked me why I was there. “Forty-five thousand mile maintenance,” I replied. He looked puzzled.

“None of your warning lights are on, and you just had an oil change. So we can do an inspection, but I think your car is fine.”

Apparently, regular maintenance is sooo 2005. You only have to bring your car in when it tells you there’s a problem. Who knew. So I sat in the waiting room for an hour and a half for the reassurance that my car does not need to be there.

I. Cannot. Handle. This.

Please pass the confetti and queso and pull up a chair for my pity party. It was a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad…month.

Throughout these weeks, exhausted and spent, I would snuggle up on my Tempurpedic mattress and Egyptian cotton sheets, completely consumed with this book:

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Pages and pages and pages of stories about girls across the globe. Girls who are refused education. Girls who are sold into slavery. Girls who are sold into marriage before they achieve double digits. Girls who are trafficked. Girls whose tiny, underdeveloped bodies are so grossly injured during childbirth, who do not have access to healthcare providers or hospitals, who are outcast to the borders of their villages, left to die.  Girls who are discarded, abandoned, neglected, raped, beaten, starved.

My friends, in much of the world, this is the rule—not the exception. In much of the world, this is the expectation.

And yet, through various organizations, these girls are being lifted up, educated, and trained. Through the miraculous effort of a few brave voices saying this is not okay, entire communities are being elevated—because when women are given a voice and a seat at the table, everyone benefits.

So there I am, lying in my comfortable bed, on soft sheets. Safe. Fed. Educated. Reading about unimaginable injustice. Yet still exhausted from stress.

I procrastinated writing about this, hoping my muse would show up and reveal to me a neatly wrapped conclusion and a tidy application. I’m still waiting.

On one hand, stress is stress. Dealing with sick kids and unmet expectations and pink puke and driving 400 miles a week (I wish I were exaggerating)—those are all very real.

But what in the hell gives me the right to complain?

I spend hours and hours every week in the car and rarely travel more than five miles from my home. Because I have the freedom to drive. In my car. Whose monthly payment would feed and educate a third world family for a year.

My child was sick. And I took him to the doctor, gave him medicine and food and water so he would get well within a week.

I had to pick up my daughter early from school. In which she is freely educated and challenged and given opportunities most girls in the world don’t even know exist.

I spent hours trying to activate my new smartphone. I can’t even.

My husband left without me on a weekend trip. A trip which was an option. With my husband, who loves and values me, who elevates me, who treasures me as an equal partner, who was more disappointed than I when I couldn’t go. 

I got a speeding ticket. For which I could pay. And not for a second did I fear being jailed or kidnapped or assaulted when being pulled over.

I cannot reconcile the juxtaposition. My stress is real. But every ounce of it is First World. But it is still real, and I have no tidy answer to make sense of the polarity.

I guess all I can do is strive for what Glennon Melton calls perspectacles. Operating from a place of gratitude seems like a good place to start. Continuing to read and learn about global justice issues—when it would be so much easier to squeeze my eyes shut and plug my ears like a toddler—and then playing whatever small role I can to eradicate those issues. Breathing deeply, practicing awareness, praying, being still.

Realizing the sky covers the entire globe, and holding up half of it is a big job, no matter which piece of the sky you touch.

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On making decisions

In 1995, I was a starry-eyed college senior, ridiculously in love with this cute boy and his big brown eyes. He wanted to be a doctor. He gave me a ring. And together, we planned our future. We had no (insert multiple swear words) idea what we were getting ourselves into. Which is definitely a good thing.

Deciding where he would go to medical school was our first major joint decision. He applied and interviewed at multiple schools, then narrowed the list to two: UT-Southwestern in Dallas, and Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

Have English degree, will travel—I had zero career opportunities lined up. We figured I would find something in either city. I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I grew up, only that I loved words.

(Not much has changed in nineteen years.)

So we talked about it. And talked. And talked. And talked. For weeks, I think. And we prayed and prayed and prayed, then talked some more. We weighed all the pros and cons. We begged God for a lightning bolt to set a bush on fire and unleash an audible voice, telling us what to do. Obviously, that didn’t happen.

It came down to this:

1. Dallas

  • all our friends were moving there
  • our families were close to the area
  • comfortable and familiar

2. Houston

  • the armpit of the entire country
  • don’t know anyone
  • unfamiliar

No brainer, right?

I spent part of my childhood in Houston, and I was well into adulthood before I forgave my parents for moving us to Dallas. I stewed in fury for the latter part of my adolescence because we were no longer living in Houston. I was an angry, angry teenager. The irony of not wanting to return to Houston as an adult does not escape me. Life is weird like that.

But BCM had a great school, and at the time, it was structured a little differently, which Michael liked. We continued to talk and pray.

I remember tears. Lots of tears.

As we prayed together, we always said the same thing. God, show us where you want us to be. We only want what you want. We only want to be where you want us to be.

And also, pleasepleasepleaseplease tell us.

We kept waiting for the lighting, the burning bush, the audible voice. We’d even settle for a whisper. We just wanted to know.

After weeks of this, and a looming deadline, and silence, we sat on the couch in my apartment and looked at each other. We knew.

We were moving to Houston.

And I cried. Again.

As much as we prayed and begged God for a clear answer, we never got it. But what he gave us was a gift far better, and one we have carried with us and returned to throughout our marriage.

It doesn’t matter where you go. I will bless either decision. What matters is the process. What matters is how you snuggle up close to me and ask for my wisdom. That’s what I want for you. And because of that, I am giving you the freedom to choose. Go ahead. I am with you. I am for you. You are mine.

In hindsight, Houston was absolutely the best place for us to be. Yes, sometimes we couldn’t see the skyline because of the smog. Yes, the traffic was horrendous. Yes, walking from the front door to the car in July left us drenched in sweat and stink.

But.

We formed priceless friendships with people who challenged us and walked with us and shaped us, many of whom are still precious friends. We would not be the same people today without them.

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All of these babies are now in high school. Seriously.

We loved our church—not only the community, but also the blend of liturgy and art, the embracing of silence, the learning of meditative Taize prayer and worship.

We loved the city. Houston’s food and culture and diversity rivals New York City. (Almost. Even though we were too broke to experience most of it.)

We needed to be away from our parents and our friends. We did. We needed to be in a place where we only had each other, where we were forced to depend on each other and begin our marriage without a safety net.

Sitting on the couch in my college apartment, we couldn’t have known any of this.

But it was absolutely the best choice.

Could we have spent the first four to five years of marriage in Dallas and still have been blessed? Undoubtedly. But we didn’t, and neither of us would want to go back in time and change a single thing.

(Except perhaps the eyewear. And the clothing choices.)

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Nineteen years and countless decisions later, we still return to that experience, and now we are teaching our children. Who you are is more important than what you do. When we have reached other proverbial forks in the road, sometimes our next steps are clearly lit. Most times they are not. Regardless, we know that our hearts and our love for God are the priority.

In the seeking, we find wisdom.

In the trusting, we find peace.

In the silence, we find him.

 

The two roads diverge in a yellow wood, and God will go with us down either.

And that makes all the difference.

The Ins, the Outs, and losing control

I recently deleted the Facebook app on my phone in an attempt to get a life.

Seriously. When I am bored/unmotivated/uninspired/procrastinating, I could easily allow myself to be sucked into the vortex of wasted time, only to be spit out a hour and a half later, having accomplished nothing but a worn-out fingertip from all the scrolling. Plus my brain started to spin from All The Words. Oh my. So many words.

Last year, I laid down Facebook as my Lenten sacrifice—except when I sat in one particular space. That worked well, and it opened my eyes to the gross amount of wasted time and energy. (Plus, I made sure I stayed well-hydrated for those six weeks.)

But this year, even before Lent, I deleted my app. I’ll still use my Safari app to take a quick peek, but it’s not nearly as user-friendly, so I don’t stay on for very long. Which is good. Because really. Ninety-eight-point-two percent of FB content is just dumb. (Your posts, of course, fall into the 1.8%  that is clever and inspiring and thoroughly enjoyable.)

So you would think with all this freed-up mental energy, I would be racking up my lost IQ points and expending some serious creative energy. Instead, I download Monopoly. Which is equally as dumb and time-wasting.

Except when I’m kicking some serious Monopoly tail. It’s quite a rush when the computer player lands on Boardwalk with a hotel and pays me $2000, forcing him to mortgage all his properties in order to stay alive. Boo to the Yah.

But when I’m on the other end, it kinda sucks. I was making my way around the board yesterday, $22 in my account, all my properties mortgaged, while the other three computer players had 4- and 5-digit accounts and hotels coming out their ears. Or race car wheels. Whatever. Not fair! screamed my inner eight-year old. I felt like I was back in middle school…or high school…or college…or playgroup…or PTA: left behind, out of the loop, excluded from the cool kids, not able to keep up, not able to stay in the game, always on the outside. A loser in a game I didn’t want to play. Not fair.

A few weeks ago, I chaperoned a trip to the bowling alley with a group of middle and high school students from our church. I sat back and stealthily observed the fascinating dynamics of the In Crowds and the Out Crowds. Here’s what I noticed:

The In Crowd = long, straight, frizzless hair; loud, enthusiastic. Running shorts. Flawless skin and makeup. Always, always chewing gum (with their mouths open, looking like cows. One of my pet peeves.)

The Out Crowd = quiet. Slightly awkward. Less than perfect skin, hair, makeup. Occasionally glaring at the In Crowd, but also afraid to look at them. Definitely more fearful, less outgoing, more insecure. They almost cower in the shadow of the In Crowd.

I could slap a nametag on each girl with the name of someone I used to know.

As a mom, such dynamics break my heart. I know the lines dividing Cool from Not Cool are false and unnecessary, that all teenage girls have pain and insecurity, that they all feel like outsiders. At least I think they do. My friend D insists that she (a perky blonde California cheerleader) knew everyone liked her and she had no insecurity. Which means, of course, that all the non-blonde, non-cheerleader types like me hated her.

(Sorry, D.)

But today she is one of my dearest friends. For the bowling crowd, someday the lines will move and sometimes disappear altogether, someday the Ins and the Outs will belong to each other. Someday they will share coffee and projects and secrets, they will speak kindly to each other and laugh together and enjoy each other. Someday the shared adult experiences will evaporate the false divisions of adolescence.

But for now, they will just ignore each other, resent each other, glare at each other.

And, fellow heartbroken moms, there is nothing we can do about it. Lately this truth has flattened me. Even if I did everything right (I didn’t), even if I were a perfect mother (I’m not)—even then, my kids would still be jacked up, insecure, and afraid. Even then, they would be broken and hurt. Even then, they would doubt their value, their purpose, their significance. Even then.

Even the most loved kids from the most loving families can feel unlovable. Even the best kids from the best families can make very bad decisions. I’ll let you in on a little secret: we have zero control, and there are zero guarantees. That verse we quote and claim and hang on walls and embroider on pillows?

Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it (Proverbs 22:6). 

In the immortal words of Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride,

 “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

So let’s agree to shelve it, please. (What?! Incontheevable.)

When you look at the original language, this verse translates as a proverb, not a promise. There’s a huge difference. Train up a child according to his palate [in keeping with his individual gift or bent], and when he is old, he will not turn from it. In other words, if your kid likes music, encourage him to develop that gift, enroll him in piano lessons, and when he is old, he will still like music. Your kid is an athlete? A dancer? An artist? Embrace that gift and teach her to love it…and when she’s an adult, she will still love it. The unspoken implication is you shouldn’t force your kid to be something he’s not. If he doesn’t like sports, don’t insist upon Little League. When he’s old, he still won’t like it, no matter how many pitches you make him hit.

That’s all. Nothing here about how teaching enough right things will guarantee your kid will grow up to be a good person.

Sorry to burst that little bubble.

Like I said, zero control and zero guarantees.

I’m realizing lately that my kids could very easily walk away from the faith in which we have so intentionally raised them. Of course, I hope they don’t. I pray they will embrace the truth and joy and hope and peace we have tried to teach them. I hope they figure out for themselves that what we have taught them is true and good and worth it.

But they might not.

And there’s nothing I can do about that. Just like there’s nothing I can do to make my child feel included and loved at the bowling alley. Or at school, or on the playground, or at a friend’s house, or at church.

That doesn’t mean I’m without hope or purpose in my parenting, and that doesn’t exempt me from teaching them and loving them and pouring into them. Not at all. It only means that I have to release control—no, my illusion of control—because there is so little I can actually control. And my kids’ choices and feelings are not one of those things.

(How’s that for uplifting?)

So I pray. I pray that God will bless them with faith to believe he is who he says he is, and that they are who God says they are. I pray he will protect them, hold them, speak to them…and that they will listen. And if when they don’t? I will continue to pray, knowing that he is a master of divine redemption, of taking the broken and making it beautiful. Some of my favorite people have long, long stories of brokenness and beauty.

My friend Erika survived leukemia. We’re attempting to write a book about it. She has shared many profound truths with me (that we can’t wait to share with you), and one of the greatest is this: she realizes the same Jesus who held her hand and healed her during her horrific leukemia treatment is the same Jesus who holds her teenagers. He took care of her; he will take care of them.

And mine. And yours.

What if we’re wrong?

Earlier this summer, in hopes of prying my children’s eyeballs away from all electronic screens, I entertained the idea of buying a trampoline. I did a little research online before requesting recommendations from my Facebook friends.

Within minutes, my Facebook feed lit up with opinions. All those who had trampolines said it was the best money they’d ever invested. Those who do not shrieked in outrage about dangerous risks and broken bones. I found the entire conversation to be a fascinating lesson in the psychology of persuasion. It makes sense, doesn’t it? We use our experiences and our opinions to convince someone else to make the same decisions so that we can, in our own minds, justify the validity and truth of what we’ve already decided. If someone else imitates us, then our decisions and our ideas are the right ones.

My Facebook and Twitter feeds have been bursting with opinions on a wide variety of topics lately. I have friends on all ends of the ideological spectrum—for which I am thankful—and they all have something to say. I also subscribe to several interesting pages and blogs, like Relevant, Deeper Story, Huff Post Religion, (in)courage, Rachel Held Evans, Anne Lamott, Patheos, Rage Against the Minivan, MomasteryBeth Moore, Brian McLaren, and Rick Warren. I get whiplash from swinging my brain left to right.

I once heard this explanation of ideologies: a conservative strives to conserve the good things from the past, while a liberal wants to liberate us from what has hindered us. I think the truth lies somewhere in between—although I’m cynical enough to believe we have a lot of liberating to do.

Ironically, many issues we once fought to conserve, we eventually liberated. Did you know Galileo was excommunicated from the church for boldly stating the earth revolved around the sun? Or that many well-respected church leaders used Scripture to defend slavery? And a hundred years later, many well-meaning followers of Jesus argued the Biblical case for segregation? In each case, God’s beloved hand-picked a few verses to make their case. Obviously, we know now that they were wrong.  We know better. Our understanding of God and the world has evolved, thanks to a few courageous souls willing to stand up and challenge the party line.

I can believe the Bible is inerrant, but interpretations are not. My faith is both foundational and fluid. Which, in light of current issues and recent changes to a boys’ organization and Supreme Court rulings and outraged believers, begs the question:

What if we’re wrong?

What if we’re clinging so tightly to our interpretations that we have fingernail indentations on our palms? What if our closed hands and minds prevent us from seeing the greater work of God? What if He wants to do something new, and we refuse to listen?

It’s just a thought.

The Pharisees get a bad rap. We condemn them for rejecting Jesus, for not releasing the Old Testament Law and receiving the new covenant. They loved the law. They studied the law. They did everything they could to fulfill the law, to check off the boxes, to do what God had commanded them to do. They lived out what they were raised to believe. And they missed the point.

Today, those of us who love Jesus and want to conserve what we believe to be true are well-meaning. We love the Bible. We study the Bible. We do everything we can to check off the boxes, to do what God has commanded us to do. But, dare I say, we have missed the point. Mercy, not sacrifice. 

Our interpretations may differ. We might interpret cultural and historical context differently, and we may disagree on what we think God’s heart is saying. That’s okay. It’s been that way for a long, long time.

But closing our ears to someone’s story, turning away from entering into their pain, condemning those who think differently from us? Perpetuating the us vs. them mentality, supporting battlefield language and making enemies of those we are commanded to love? That is never okay. Ever. 

Here’s what I think: If we loosened our grip on our ideologies just enough to let in a little perspective and compassion, I think those we have deemed as our enemies, the ones who seemingly threaten what we think is secure and right and true, could actually become our friends. In hearing their stories and how they have been rejected and made to feel small, how they have been told God could never love them, in listening without an agenda, without a formulaic plan to change their minds, we can release our need to be right and then become righteous. As in merciful, gracious, compassionate. Christ-like.

We may disagree on interpretation and meaning, but unless we drop our stones and kneel down to embrace the outcast, we will not see Thy Kingdom Come. Thy Kingdom is going to go somewhere else where the red letters come to life and Jesus’ calling is fulfilled. Thy Kingdom will slam the door so we will not witness the glory and mercy and grace of God.

Michael and I have put off the trampoline decision, not because we are still debating but simply because we are busy and it’s hot outside. But in receiving input from our friends, I wanted one person to say, “Yes, we got a trampoline, and we wished we hadn’t.” Or, “We were dead set against it, but we changed our minds, and it was the right decision.” I wanted someone to humbly admit they were wrong, or at least admit they don’t have all the answers. I can respect certainty. In some cases, absolutism is admirable. But I am drawn to authentic, honest, humble admissions of a changed mind. I feel safe with those who admit they don’t know, or that they made a mistake, or that they could possibly not be so certain. In that sacred, safe space, I can feel free to express my own questions, my own doubts, my own uncertainties. In that space, we can agree to lean into the gray areas and rest there, to open ourselves to thoughts that are scary and new and different. We can agree to love deeply, to be brave enough to enter into someone’s story and learn from them.

We might even find the courage to admit we were wrong.

 

 

PS: Highly recommended reading for those who, like me, are exploring the gray—or if you need a starting place for moving toward compassion, perspective, and understanding:

Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate by Justin Lee. (Intelligent, heart-breaking, very well written. Game-changer.)

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Evolving in Monkeytown: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask the Questions by Rachel Held Evans (Hilarious, relatable, authentic, thought-provoking. One of my favorite reads this year.)51zgBzw+S8L

Emmanuel – Light in our darkness


After hugging and greeting each 8th grade girl, I always begin each Wednesday night “cell group” time with a worship song. (For the record, I loathe the name cell. It’s like we’re in jail. But that’s the label the church has chosen, so there’s not much I can do.)
Last Wednesday, I attempted to hold their attention while I explained that night’s selection. Amid the crackle of Skittles wrappers and giggly comments and peeks at their cell phones, I introduced my favorite Christmas carol.
For thousands of years, the Jews had been waiting for their Messiah. They suffered enormous persecution and hardship, enslaved in a land that was not home, crying out for God to come and rescue them. 
O come, o come Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
Who mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appears
Rejoice, rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel
I explained to them how we, in our present suffering and stress and grief, also wait. We beg God — our Emmanuel, our God with us — to rescue us, to be near us. We wait for His return, just as He promised, to save us from this place that is not our home.
That was Wednesday night. On Friday morning, a darkness so thick, so putrid, descended upon a small school in Connecticut like a tsunami, slamming us to the ground, leaving us gasping for breath.
O come, Thou Rod of Jesse
Free thine own from Satan’s tyranny
From depths of Hell thy people save
And give them victory o’er the grave
Rejoice, rejoice! 
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

As details trickled in, as stories were reported and corrected, we could not awaken from this unthinkable nightmare. Surely this could not be real. Not here. Not now. 
When I tried to understand these things, it was too hard for me; until I entered the sanctuary of God and discerned the end of the wicked. Psalm 73:16-17
The darkness is suffocating. I hate it. How can a place of such beauty and goodness coexist with such evil? Where is the justice in twenty mommas and daddies who cannot tuck in their babies and kiss them goodnight? Who will never again smell their freshly washed hair or laugh at their toothless grins? Where is the peace for hundreds of babies whose fear keeps them awake at night?
When I tried to understand these things, it was too hard for me…
That night, our family drove into downtown Fort Worth for an event that had been on our calendar for months. We, along with 1800 other volunteers, piled into flatbed trailers loaded with hay and boxes of toys, to scatter small shards of light throughout the inner city neighborhoods. One house, one family at a time, we knocked on the door and began to sing of a newborn baby in the hay, of jingle bells, of angels. We sang until someone opened the door – or until we determined they would not. We asked them if they had children, how many children, what are their ages, boys or girls – then we ran back to the trailer for Legos and superheroes, toy cars and baby dolls. We learned their stories, their needs. We prayed with them. We hugged them and wished them a Merry Christmas. Tiny specks of light illumined the darkness.
O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice, rejoice! 
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

Today, as I do every Monday morning, I sent my kids off to school with a kiss and a wish for a good day, and I drove across town. I entered the Title I school where I tutor first graders — first graders. As I walked to their classroom, my emotions threatened to overtake me, and I swallowed my sobs. A substitute teacher was there — which was probably a good thing. Had I seen the classroom teacher, who has become my friend, I would not have been able to hold myself together. The sub was a mean, grouchy, old lady. No patience with these sweet babies. No softness. Just a stern, harsh voice and narrow eyes. What’s WRONG with you? I thought. These are our babies! These are six- and seven-year olds! We have to hug them and love them! We have to tell them how wonderful and beautiful and special they are!
So I did. I helped them with their spelling words. (The first word on the list? Hope.) I high-fived them. I hugged them. I gave each of them a tiny chocolate Santa tied to a candy cane with a brightly colored ribbon. Santa looked like he was being held for ransom. “I love you,” I told them before I left. “I am so happy to be your helper. I will see you in January.” The narrow-eyed sub barked, “What do you say to Mrs. Hunt?”
“Thank you,” they chimed, and twenty soft, chubby hands waved good-bye.
Light conquers darkness.
I lay in bed last weekend picturing a first grade classroom — which was my son’s classroom — and the terror that must have happened there. I pictured faces — which belonged to my son and his friends and his teacher — and I could not bear the weight of desperation and grief. 
Oh God! I cannot see. I cannot fathom. I cannot stay in this place. It is too much to bear. Oh come, Emmanuel!
This light and momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen, but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are temporary, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:17-18). 
Their terror was momentary. Their glory, their joy is beyond comparison. These babies, these heroes are free. They are whole. They are no longer afraid.
And for those left here, weighted with unanswerable questions and unbearable grief, we have only pieces of light to fight off our despair. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:5) The darkness WILL NOT WIN. Light always trumps the darkness. Love always wins. Always. The darkness has not overcome it, DAMMIT! I have to believe that. The evil of this world does not stand a chance against the light of God living in His people and His creation. “I entered the sanctuary of God and discerned the end of the wicked.” Love will win. Evil will not.
On Sunday morning, in my cracked, off-key voice, I made a joyful noise, tears streaming down my cheeks. I sang gloria, oh come let us adore him, we rise up and call you beautiful. And through my tears, I could see twenty little faces and six brave women, gathered around Him, sitting in his lap, singing with me. Gloria. Let us adore him. 
O come, Thou Key of David, come,
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice, rejoice! 
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.
Today is not a day for answers, for platitudes, for reasons why. This day is reserved for grief. On this day, we affirm that we belong to each other. On this day, we light a candle and remind ourselves that light shines in the darkness. Emmanuel — God with us in our grief, God with us in our confusion, God with us in our darkness — will come. 

Rejoice.

Dr. J and Mrs. H: A Beautiful Disaster

There’s a place that I know
It’s not pretty there, and few have ever gone.
If I show it to you now
Will it make you run away?
Or will you stay
Even if it hurts
Even if I try to push you out?
Will you return
And remind me who I really am?
Please remind me who I really am.
Everybody’s got a dark side
Do you love me?
Can you love mine?
Nobody’s a picture perfect
But we’re worth it
You know that we’re worth it.
Will you love me
Even with my dark side?

Apparently I have a split personality. Given the right concoction of genetics, history, exhaustion, and hypoglycemia, cooked under the proper temperature of circumstances, I can transform from Nice Me to Horribly Frightening Me. Kinda like Jekyll and Hyde – which, coincidentally, share my initials.
Nice Me – we’ll call her Dr. J – helps Title I first graders learn to read. She feeds and clothes the homeless. She holds all things loosely and gives generously. She calls cashiers by their first names and smiles at strangers. She pours herself into a precious group of 8th grade girls, who adoringly call her “Mom.” Dr. J affirms the value of every human, even the fundamentalists, Tea Partiers, and luxury car owners. She hugs her children, kisses her husband, sacrifices her time, her sleep, and her preferences to serve them. Dr. J is a nice lady.
Horribly Frightening Me – we’ll call her Mrs. H – blasts her husband, ignores her children, curses the widows and orphans, and causes everyone to walk on eggshells from fear of her wrath. Especially around family holidays. Mrs. H is mean and grouchy and not fun. She pops in unannounced and takes over the entire house. She barks and growls and snarls until everyone runs for cover and she’s left alone with her nasty self. Then Mr. H steps in and orders her to knock it off. Which only makes her more mean and nasty. She swings a heavy club and spews poison. No one is safe until she leaves.
Dr. J enters and surveys the damage. She stares at the wreckage. She presses her palms to her eyes and asks aloud, “What THE HELL just happened here?
How shall the twain ever doth meet?
The incompatibility has launched me into a tailspin. I’m a beautiful disaster, a sacred mess. And I’m realizing that’s the way it’s going to be for a while.
Wholeness is a fallacy. We’re not ever going to be completely whole while we are breathing. We strive to be less broken. We pray to be more whole. Whole-ish. But even when we heal from the past, when we forgive, when we get over it, we’re still not whole. We’re still broken. We’re still a mess. And life continually breaks us, even when we walk on a path to whole-ishness. That’s just how it is.
I remember a conversation I had with a college classmate, back when I was Young and Stupid. She didn’t like the idea of a God sitting up in heaven, reaching down his holy hand and messing with us, moving us around like dolls or marionettes or action figures. Life is pretty damn good without all that hocus-pocus, she said, so what’s the point? In my infinite twenty year old wisdom, I spluttered something about life being better after we die. Only years later did I realize the incompleteness of my answer – life is better now, of course, when we know God is with us here, when we live as He planned, when we love and serve Him, when we love and serve others.
That’s the central mission for the post-modernist Christian. The antiquated method of evangelism with a tract emblazoned with the Five Spiritual Laws (“say a prayer and go to heaven”) doesn’t fly anymore.  Life with Christ means life and fulfillment now. The Kingdom on Earth. Heaven is merely a bonus.
I do believe that. I live that. I cling to that. But while cleaning up the destruction caused by Mrs. H, then reading prophecy in both ends of the Bible, I have to say: heaven doesn’t sound too shabby. The bad guys are sent away. The good guys win. No crying or mourning, because there will be no suffering. No lamps, because there will be no night. There will be lots of trees and fruit and food.
And if I may extrapolate, no bitter history, no hurt feelings, no self-centered, self-serving rants. No whining or yelling, no scowls or pouty looks. No worrying what everyone thinks, no fixations on our thighs or muffin tops or blood pressure.
 At last, we will be whole. 
Until then, here we are. A glorious, effed-up, broken mess, crawling our way to whole-ishness. Not much else we can do, I suppose, but make the best of it. Give generously. Love lavishly. Be gentle with ourselves and with others. Forgive ourselves and forgive others – because we’re all messed up. Attempt to quiet the Mrs. Hs of our splintered existence – beating them back with a stick, cleaning up their messes, praying for the strength to kick their ugly backsides. 
For now, we hobble forward with our dual selves, remembering even the smallest light will always conquer the darkest corners of night.


That which requires steel-toed boots

So Caroline is all up in my grill about writing my post on the first section of Interrupted for the book club. “Are you writing yet? When are you gonna write? What are you going to write about? Have you written today or what?”
I’ll go with “what.”
It’s the first week of school, for crying out loud. If that weren’t enough, my pharmacy replaced the generic medication I’ve been taking for twenty years with a new generic medication, and it’s messing with me in a kill-me-now kind of way. And I’ve been walking around in a state of exhaustion because getting up at 6:30 a.m. is not fun. Eeyore’s dark cloud follows me everywhere. My keyboard is drizzled with snot and tears because my Zyrtec and Flonase decided they just aren’t up for the task this week.
My children are ducking for cover, peeking their heads out only to ask when I will return their confiscated electronic devices. My head then spins around, I barf up pea soup, and screech, “NEVVVVVEERRRRRRR!” 
Right about that time, I get another text from Caroline asking me when I’m going to write my post.
She’s so annoying. In an endearing kind of way. She assured me that she would still be my friend after I told her the direction I’ve decided to take with this post. And she reminded me that I’m an introvert, so I really only need one friend. (But I’d like some back-up in case she changes her mind, so please reconsider your strong inclination to dump me after you read this.)
Here goes. Pick up your feet; I’m about to step on some toes.
(Brief footnote here: where I’ve included a block quote in italics, I’m quoting Jen Hatmaker in this first chapter. I’d give you specific page numbers, but Caroline’s husband is taking his sweet time reading my paperback copy of this book. Sheesh. He’s a middle school assistant principal, and it’s the first week of school…blah, blah, blah. Get it together, Ryan. Therefore, I’m quoting from my Kindle, which has no page numbers. The English major in me is breaking out into hives.)
I re-read “Winter 2007” for the third time this afternoon. I loved it even more than the first two times I read it, and I’m formulating a plan to make Jen Hatmaker my new best friend (sorry, Caroline) in the least stalkerish way possible.
Man, this chick is good. She is the real deal. She can speak convicting truth with sincerity and hilarity. She admits her shortcomings, her doubts, and her struggles with a self-deprecating humor I hugely admire. She told her 5th grader to grab a shovel and go dig his own grave after mouthing off. I love this woman.
In this chapter, she tells us how God royally messed her up. In a most loving way, of course. The tension began with a feeling that something was “off.” Several things “challenged my concept of success, beginning with the nagging sensation that Brandon (her husband) and I were far too consumed with worthless things…few around us questioned the American Dream, (so the feeling) was easily dismissed.”
Let’s talk about success, greatness, and the American Dream. I’ve had this hunch for the last several years, and Jen Hatmaker confirmed it. We are off. SO off. We have been HUGELY misled. I can’t pretend to be a historian, but I remember the high school football coaches teaching me in U.S. History that our nation’s roots began with a desire for independence – to live self-sufficiently, with no one telling us what to do, free to make our own choices, free to worship (or not) how we desire. So far, so good.
Somewhere around the Manifest Destiny, I think our egos may or may not have gotten a little bloated. Somehow we adopted this attitude that we deserve prosperity, that Americans are God’s chosen people, that pulling yourself up by your bootstraps without any help is an admirable quality. Wealth is good. Reputation is good. Power is good.
Just so we’re clear. God’s chosen people? That would be the Israelites. Not us. We’re blessed, absolutely. God had a purpose for establishing the United States of America. He’s done some great things here. But I think we’ve missed the point – at least in part.
Every time I hear someone talk about our country being “a Christian nation,” I throw up a little in my mouth. A nation which happens to house a large percentage of people who call themselves Christians? Yes. But – strap on your steel-toed boots here – if we were truly a “Christian nation,” we would have no need for Social Security. Or foster care. Or food stamps. Or government-subsidized housing. If we were what we claim to be, we wouldn’t have malnourished kids and homeless vets. 
Nationality aside, if we were truly an Acts 2 body of believers, everyone would be provided for. No one would be in need.
As we stand now, we want what we want when we want it. We want to do what we want to do, and we refuse to do what we don’t want to do. We climb over every obstacle (a euphemism for “people in our way”) to gain a greater income, greater reputation, greater influence. We shop til we drop. We spend thousands upon thousands upon thousands of dollars to improve our appearances. We have pantries stocked with food that we will never eat, closets full of clothes we will never wear. If someone doesn’t have what he needs to survive – well, he needs to get a better grip on his bootstraps and work harder. We are self-absorbed, indulgent, and arrogant.
By the way, I’m including myself in this “we.” I am all of those things. And frankly, I disgust myself.
While the richest people in the world pray to get richer, the rest of the world endures unimaginable suffering with their faces pressed to the windows of our prosperity, and we carry on oblivious.
I think it’s high time we redefine success.
Biblical success equals humility. It is interdependence. It is community. It is caring deeply for every created being, providing for others out of our abundance – and out of our sacrifice. It is standing up and fighting for the oppressed to be free, the ignored to be heard, the marginalized to be embraced.
The righteous care about justice for the poor. (Proverbs 29:7)
Dear friends, do you think you’ll get anywhere in this if you learn all the right words but never do anything? Does merely talking about faith indicate that a person really has it? For instance, you come upon an old friend dressed in rags and half-starved and say, “Good morning, friend! Be clothed in Christ! Be filled with the Holy Spirit!” and walk off without providing so much as a coat or a cup of soup—where does that get you? Isn’t it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense? (James 2:14-17 MSG)
This was the sin of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters were arrogant, overfed, and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. (Ezekiel 16:49)
And there are approximately 1,997 more verses speaking about poverty, oppression, justice, and the sharing of resources. Just so you know. God slathered His obsession with social justice all over the Old and New Testaments. I’m not sure how we’ve managed to ignore it.
Hey, here’s something crazy: In the Word, poverty, widows, hunger – these are not metaphors. There are billions of lambs that literally need to be fed. With food.
Some of you might be bothered by the term “social justice” and the fact (yes, fact) that God is “obsessed” with it. I’m not sure when social justice became a dirty word. End of slavery? Women’s suffrage? Child labor laws? Civil rights era? All under the umbrella of social justice. It’s a good thing. 
And obsessed? My thirteen year old daughter epitomizes obsession. There’s a cute little boy band from across the pond, and she is obsessed. She knows all their names and birthdays and every single tidbit of published trivia about each one. She lights up when their names are mentioned or their songs come on the radio. Michael and I were talking about our scattered priorities one day, and he happened to say, “we need to stop and head in one direction…” at which time Meghan, who had been ignoring us, jumped up and squealed, “WHAT?”
I can’t fault her. Those boys are pretty cute. And talented. And I’ve been known a time or two or twenty-seven to have obsessions of my own.
I side with Jen Hatmaker on this one. God is obsessed with social justice. He thinks about it. He talks about it. He lights up when we fight for it. He does a back flip when we achieve it. It’s all over scripture, and we can ignore it no longer. I say this not to heap a big pile of guilt on you. Believe me, I have beams of timber protruding from both my eyeballs. I’m with you. I’m hoping you’ll join me as I step out of this boat and figure out where we go from here.
It’s not that we don’t have good intentions, right? We want to do good. We want to be who God has called us to be. We want to make a difference. We are simply blinded to the suffering of the world outside our comfy little bubbles. We don’t know what we don’t know. 
Most of us have no concept of our own prosperity. Nor do we have an accurate understanding of the plight of the rest of the world. Our perspective is limited and our church culture is so consumer oriented that we’re blinded to our responsibility to see God’s kingdom come ‘to all nations,’ as He was so fond of saying in His Word.
“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven.” Let’s think about this. God’s kingdom in Heaven will be one of complete reconciliation. Peace. Equality. Provision. We will want for nothing. I believe that God’s call for this generation is to be the answer to this prayer. By God working through us, we can bring reconciliation, peace, equality and provision to Earth. Certainly, it will not be complete until we are all in Heaven together. But I think He wants us to get started now.
So this is my challenge for you and for myself this week: Let us open our eyes. Look around. See other people as stories – because everyone has a story. If we’re lucky, maybe they’ll share it with us.
And see yourself as their servants. Look at someone, and think to yourself, “I am your servant. I am here to serve you. How can I make your life better today?” Even those – no, especially those whom you may not like, who may not agree with you, who are different from you. Smile. Make eye contact. Yield. Affirm the value in every person who intersects your path. Clean up your own mess, even if there are employees who would do it for you. Change your thoughts, change your heart, change your actions.
Pray each day for God to use you to serve others, to show His love and grace in a very tangible way. Ask Him to use you to provide for their physical needs. 
All I can do is make the tiniest ripple in the ocean. That’s about all you’re good for too. But it’s foolish to become paralyzed by the scope of suffering or discouraged by the limit of our reach…Alone, we can affect a few. But together, we can change the world.
Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation…It is from the numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance. (Robert F. Kennedy)
If you’ve made it this far into this post, and you’re still my friend, congratulations. You’ve done better than my mother. (Just kidding, Mom…Mom?) I’d really love to hear your thoughts and your ideas about what you can do in your corner of the world – not only for encouragement, but to give all of us ideas on ways to serve. 
If you haven’t started this book yet, DO IT. You cannot walk away unchanged. 
Caroline has informed me that I will write another post on Chapter 2 by Monday. (Seriously? It’s Labor Day. Dude. I’ll see you Thursday.) Miss Overachiever will surely have her thoughts on her blog by Monday, though. So it’s not like we’re leaving you hanging.
That’s all. Remove the boots. Resume the flip flops. And start walking.


PS: After I finished this post, I came across “In Which I Admit I Am Afraid of Poverty.” Breathtaking. And Caroline and I totally want to do a GS4O. Stay tuned.